WARNING: This is not a short column. It may contain traces of hypocrisy.

It is time for New Zealand Rugby to take the lead and divorce itself from alcohol sponsorship. The rest of the sporting country will soon follow.

There is no flashpoint for this, though the news several members of the woeful Auckland NPC team "celebrated" their efforts against neighbours North Harbour - result, a 10-57 loss - with an all-night session on the beers gave pause for thought, following on as it did from the release of the Respect and Responsibility Review.

It must be noted that as far as we know, none of these young men did anything against the law and the fact they haven't been sanctioned by their union suggests they didn't even do anything against those nebulous things called "team protocols". In fact, by having the session at a player's house rather than at an inner-city drinkery, they did a lot of things right.


But then again...

The NPC has slipped in standing since its pre-professional glory days but it remains an integral part of New Zealand's rugby fabric and purports to be high-performance sport. In what high-performance environment is a bender - and any session that carries on through to dawn is a bender - appropriate, particularly when you're playing, and presumably training for, a six-day turnaround?

Most sports scientists would say that's lunacy, with alcohol slowing down recovery from soft-tissue injuries and decreasing central nervous system activity, as per this Massey University research paper.

There's also the point, made loud and clear with the presentation of the Respect and Responsibility Review commissioned by New Zealand Rugby, that bad things can happen when rugby players turn on the taps.

Some 36 cases of serious misconduct and not-so-serious misconduct dealt with by NZ Rugby between 2013 and 2017 and "in more than half of the situations alcohol played a key factor, with drugs and drug/alcohol combinations also having an impact", the report noted.

Despite the odd advertisement that suggests otherwise, good decisions are very rarely made while on the beers.

Those two points alone - the negative effect of physical and mental recovery and the propensity for bad behaviour to occur - should be enough to have rugby seriously reconsidering its relationship with alcohol, but there is something even more elemental to this than that.

The association of alcohol with celebration, or in Auckland's case, of drowning your sorrows, has become so implied it is part of our culture. The belief that alcohol is the appropriate reward for the training you've put in during the week, the shift you've put in during the match, is one of the reasons New Zealand has not been able to shake its binge-drinking habit.

It's a hand-in-glove relationship and one that is overdue for change, and rugby can lead it.

This, those who know me as more than this sanctimonious byline, is where the striking hypocrisy comes in.

I'm one of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who need little excuse for a drink and yet I'm never placed under the same scrutiny as professional sportsmen and women. I'm well into my fifth decade and still spend the odd evening pickling my liver, yet that will never make the headlines like it would if I was Jesse Ryder, or Zac Guildford or any number of young men (and let's be blunt about it, this is largely a male issue) who excel in sport.

I can justify beersies for the following reasons: the heat, a job completed in the yard, Sundays, a hard week at work, being in a foreign country, a hard day at work, a hard morning at work, a decent round of golf, a smooth chord change, a poor round of golf, a well struck five iron on the par four seventh, stress relief, the visit of an old friend, the visit of the mother-in-law, a small success, Wednesdays, the footy's on telly, the cricket's on telly, the end of a quick jog, a complementary food match, a food substitute, birthdays/ weddings/ funerals, holidays, the boss is a dick who just doesn't get it, a nightcap, an aperitif, a crushing failure, air travel, a night out, a night in, Saturdays, a completed column.

The entire industry I work in can smell like the floor of the Royal Tavern at 2am. The alcohol fumes from the annual media awards could power an aircraft carrier.

Whether I care to admit it or not, alcohol has been a faithful companion during many of my life's big moments and some of its more forgettable ones.

So what right do I have to lecture New Zealand Rugby to lead a seachange? It's two-fold. One, alcohol's relationship with sport is so entwined it needs gradual untangling, and; two, because although rugby's influence on modern society might be waning, it still carries enough clout among New Zealand males to make a difference.

The first fold has many classic examples. Look at a Grand Prix podium for example. Three people have just driven a car very quickly around a track and the first thing they're asked to do is ejaculate a magnum of champagne onto all those in near proximity.

Recall Shane Warne's interviews with the Australian players following the 2015 Cricket World Cup final, where every single one of them was asked how many beers they were going to drink that night (and the answers could be summed up in a word: lots).

Rewind to the All Blacks' drought-breaking World Cup win in 2011 and how we laughed at the state of Piri Weepu and Andrew Hore at the parade the next day. The French, unlucky losers, dragged their dishevelled selves around various Auckland watering holes.

Andrew Hore (left) gets to grips with some ticker-tape and life itself during the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup victory parade in 2011. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Andrew Hore (left) gets to grips with some ticker-tape and life itself during the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup victory parade in 2011. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Think about England's postscript to the epic Ashes of 2005, when bleary-eyed they rode through the streets of London in an open-top bus and Andrew Flintoff capped off close to 24 hours straight drinking by watering the plants at 10 Downing Street.

Again, this column needs to pull back from the curse of wowserism here. Nobody, least of all me, should deny the right of the All Blacks, the really fast driver or anybody to relax and enjoy a job well done, but we need to somehow break the circuit that dictates that sport must be followed by a legendary booze-up.

I never felt I would reach this point in my thinking, mainly because there was always a false equivalence drawn between alcohol and tobacco sponsorship, which was phased out here following the Smokefree Amendment Act 1990. It is quite possible to drink in moderation and your health is barely, if at all, compromised, whereas the tobacco giants rely on their consumers to develop nicotine addiction. The alcohol industry can make plenty of money without its consumers becoming alcoholics.

But the time feels right and, in the wake of the Respect and Responsibility Review, it feels right for rugby to lead society. Ending its association with alcohol sponsorship would be the most powerful message it could deliver at this juncture.

It would have economic implications, not so much for the All Blacks who have a suite of corporate backers and no doubt more waiting in the wings, but for the levels below. All five Super Rugby franchises, for example, have a beer sponsor that is displayed with varying degrees of prominence on kit or ground signage.

Money shouts, but there are other voices that must be listened to now.

Like NZR chief Steve Tew's: "We are committing to real change and to be leaders for that change ... The integrity, reputation and ultimate success of the game in New Zealand depends on this," he said after the release of the report.

He's not talking specifically about the sport's association with alcohol, but it would be a logical place to start.


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